Google Warns: You Better Adequately Disclose Paid Content

    May 30, 2013
    Chris Crum

Google has been enforcing its policies on paid links for years, but the search engine is really cracking down on advertorials and native advertising these days. Google’s Matt Cutts has been talking about the subject a lot lately, so if your site offers any advertorial content, you better make sure you’re doing it the right way, under Google’s guidance, or you just might find yourself slapped with a harsh penalty independent of any black and white animal-named algorithms.

Native advertising is rising in popularity on the web. Do you think Google can enforce its guidelines on this well? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Earlier this month, Cutts put out a video talking about a bunch of big SEO-related changes Google is working on, and that webmasters could expect to see over the coming months. The video discussed the most recent Penguin update, which we’ve already seen take effect. One of the other things Cutts mentioned was the use of advertorials and native advertising. He said Google would be “looking at some efforts to be a little bit stronger on our enforcement” on that stuff.

Now, Cutts has a new video talking for five minutes specifically about Google’s policies on advertorials and native advertising. Yes, they’re taking this seriously, so you should too, if you’re at all concerned about your Google rankings.

“Well, it’s advertising, but it’s often the sort of advertising that looks a little closer to editorial, but it basically means that someone gave you some money, rather than you writing about this naturally because you thought it was interesting or because you wanted to,” says Cutts. “So why do I care about this? Why are we making a video about this at all? Well, the reason is, certainly within the webspam team, we’ve seen a little bit of problems where there’s been advertorial or native advertising content or paid content, that hasn’t really been disclosed adequately, so that people realize that what they’re looking at was paid. So that’s a problem. We’ve had longstanding guidance since at least 2005 I think that says, ‘Look, if you pay for links, those links should not pass PageRank,’ and the reason is that Google, for a very long time, in fact, everywhere on the web, people have mostly treated links as editorial votes.”

The video links to a Webmaster Central blog post from 2007, written by Cutts and Maile Ohye.

“Such links can hurt relevance by causing inaccuracies (false popularity and links that are not fundamentally based on merit, relevance, or authority and inequities (unfair advantage in our organic search results to websites with the biggest pocketbooks.”

“In order to stay within Google’s quality guidelines, paid links should be disclosed through a rel=’nofollow’ or other techniques such as doing a redirect through a page which is robots.txt’ed out,” they wrote.

“Other techniques” in that sentence linked to Google’s page about Link Schemes.

“Well, there’s two-fold things that you should think about,” says Cutts in the video. “The first is on the search engine side of things, and search engine wise, you should make sure that if links are paid – that is if money changed hands in order for a link to be placed on a website – that it should not flow PageRank. In essence, it shouldn’t affect search engines’ rankings. That’s no different than the guidance we’ve had for years, and years, and years.”

The video, again, suggests using rel=”nofollow”.

“Likewise, if you are doing disclosure, you need to make sure that it’s clear to people,” he adds. “A good rule of thumb is that there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure. It shouldn’t be the case that people have to dig around, buried in small print or have to click and look around a long time to find out, ‘Oh, this content that I’m reading was actually paid.'”

The video suggests using text like “Advertisement” or “Sponsored” to make advertorial content clear to users. In other words, it’s not enough to just slap a rel=”nofollow” on the links. You need to make sure it’s clear to users who aren’t necessarily (and most likely aren’t) looking for that.

“So why are we talking about this now?” Cutts continues. “This isn’t a change in our search engine policy. Certainly not in the webspam team. Well, the reason is that we’ve seen some people who have not been doing it correctly. So we’ve seen, for example, in the United Kingdom, a few sites that have been taking money, and writing articles that were paid, and including keyword-rich anchor text in those articles that flowed PageRank, and then not telling anybody that those were paid articles. And that’s the sort of thing where if a regular user happened to be reading your website, and didn’t know that it was paid, they’d really be pretty frustrated and pretty angry when they found out that it was paid.”

Back in February Google slapped a major UK flower site, Interflora, for the issue at hand. While Google itself didn’t specifically call out the company by name, right after reports about it came out, Cutts put out a “reminder” about selling links on the Webmaster Central blog.

“Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or ‘advertorial’ pages on your site that pass PageRank,” he wrote. “Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a linkselling site start with losing trust in Google’s search results, as well as reduction of the site’s visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google’s search results.”

“So, we’ve taken action on this sort of thing for years and years, and we’re going to keep taking strong action,” says Cutts in the video. “We do think it’s important to be able to figure out whether something is paid or not on the web, and it’s not just the webspam team. It’s not just search quality and web search results. The Google News team recently published on their blog, and said that if you don’t provide adequate disclosure of paid content – whether it be native advertising, advertorials – whenever there’s money changing hand, if users don’t realize that sufficiently because there’s not adequate disclosure, the Google News team mentioned that they might not only remove the paid content, but we’re willing to go up to and including removing the publication from Google News.”

We covered what the Google News team had to say about it here.

“Credibility and trust are longstanding journalistic values, and ones which we all regard as crucial attributes of a great news site,” wrote Google Sr. Director of News and Social Products, Richard Gingras. “It’s difficult to be trusted when one is being paid by the subject of an article, or selling or monetizing links within an article. Google News is not a marketing service, and we consider articles that employ these types of promotional tactics to be in violation of our quality guidelines.”

“Please remember that like Google search, Google News takes action against sites that violate our quality guidelines,” he added. “Engagement in deceptive or promotional tactics such as those described above may result in the removal of articles, or even the entire publication, from Google News.”

Interestingly, despite Google’s long-standing policy, native advertising spend is on the rise. It’s expected to reach $4.57 billion in 2017, compared to $1.63 billion last year and a projected $2.36 billion this year.

Cutts did say in the earlier video, “There’s nothing wrong inherently with advertorials or native advertising, but they should not flow PageRank, and there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure, so that users realize that something is paid – not organic or editorial.”

In case you’re still not convinced that Google is cracking down on this stuff, a couple weeks ago, Cutts tweeted that Google had just took action on thousands of linksellers.

Be warned.

Do you think native advertising is a good direction for online ads to be trending in? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.